The Championship has long been labelled one of the most unpredictable divisions in the world, but there has been a crushing inevitability about the starts made by the two southern teams promoted from League One last season, writes Craig Peters.
Whether they are maintaining momentum or simply rejuvenated by a fresh start, second-tier football has so far been made to look relatively easy by Brighton and, more so, of course, by Southampton, who sit five points clear at the top and six points clear of that ever-important first play-off spot.
A change in trend is clearly occurring. Football in the south is back on the rise. And it has to be – for the sake of future generations playing the beautiful game in our region.
Since Pompey’s relegation to the Championship the south’s presence in the top tier of English football has obviously been lacking, with the most southerly clubs now Chelsea and Fulham.
While the heavyweights of the north-west clubs continue to battle it out against the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea, the geographic statistics in the Premier League currently make for depressing reading if you are fan, follower or indeed player of Brighton, Southampton or Pompey.
Six clubs in the Premier League are from the north-west, there’s one from Wales, one from East Anglia, two from the north-east; five from London and four from the midlands.
But let’s look at the positives, firstly with Southampton. I, for one, am surprised at the terrific season they are having thus far, especially after selling one of their prized assets in Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to Arsenal. Eight home games played, eight wins and just five goals conceded.
Nigel Adkins rarely tasted the right end of the Championship during his time with Scunthorpe United but the former physiotherapist showed tremendous potential in his first managerial job and rightly saw the vacancy at Southampton, then a division below the Iron, as a greater opportunity to fulfill his ambitions in the game.
He’s got this Southampton side playing an attractive brand of football that is not just pleasing on the eye, but also sweeping their opponents aside with an almost arrogant ease. The Oxlade-Chamberlain money is now simply looking like cold, hard cash – bonus money if you will – given the way they have played against most clubs this season.
This wasn’t necessarily a Championship club losing their most important player, a blow from which they would have to recover as per previous sales such as Bale and Walcott. It is a shame that Saints fans will not get to see their latest Academy product take to the field wearing red-and-white stripes for years to come, but they’ll be used to that now.
Southampton have already demonstrated they have more than enough talent in their squad to sustain a promotion challenge this season. The big question is whether any of that £12m will be heading back out into the market when the transfer window opens in January.
Any potential recruits have a standard to meet – the likes of Jose Fonte, Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert have already helped set the bar high in that respect.
And what about Brighton – let’s make no mistake about it, another local club seriously on the rise? How can you doubt that statement? They are sitting tenth in the Championship, have an in-demand manager, sought-after players, and fill their brand-new state-of-the-art stadium to the rafters every week. They probably won’t go up this year; yet they certainly won’t go down.
But the future is more than bright for a club that almost didn’t exist back in 1997. Gus Poyet has a long-term plan – to stabilise the team, ensure it can compete and become established in the Championship, before pushing on to the next level a la Swansea City.
And this is another club who play good attractive football. Any youngster in the south going along to watch our clubs are right now being treated to exactly how the game should be played, and this can only be good for the standard of youngsters being introduced to the game across our southern regions.
Brighton fans should enjoy the ride. The stadium alone is cause for much celebration, but it doesn’t guarantee promotion. It will come when the time is right. Of all the supporters of all the clubs in the top four divisions, I can’t think of any others who have been through what Brighton’s fans have experienced.
And I should know; I’m one of them, and played for the youth team in the dark days of ground sharing with Gillingham.
On to Pompey, and many Pompey fans might wonder what they have to be optimistic about at this point. The first thing you should, well, certainly be grateful for – as ludicrous it may sound – is Southampton.
Having sat firmly at the top of the footballing perch in the south when in the Premier League, gazing down on both Brighton and Southampton in League One, Pompey have declined both on and off the pitch.
But what greater motivation do you need to get back to where you once were than seeing your arch rivals sitting top of the Championship, sneering at you like the cat that’s got the cream? All three clubs need one another, like competitive and squabbling siblings egging each other on.
Pompey have also just appointed 35-year old Michael Appleton as their new manager. Who, I hear some of you whisper awkwardly? Appleton’s appointment alone is more than reason to be optimistic about the future of your club.
Part of Roberto Di Matteo’s backroom staff at West Brom, he has soaked up his former gaffer’s passing philosophy, meaning another club on the South coast is likely to abandon the Sam Allardyce kick-and-rush style.
His appointment also follows the trend of appointing a young manager, such Andre Villas-Boas (33) at Chelsea and former Bournemouth boss Eddie Howe, who was just 29 when he took over the Cherries.
Appleton’s appointment sends out a message that this is a club now looking to build and restructure, and given Pompey’s recent unpredictable nature both on and off the field, this should be something which pleases the club’s fans and investors.
Forget the sleeping giants of Southampton and Brighton finally waking from their slumber; let’s focus on the sleeping giant of football in the south.
It means more than just having a few decent footballs clubs. It brings a positive impact to our local economies. It means people are talking about our regions and clubs again. There is a buzz in the media, both online and in the newspapers. Fans of all the southern clubs and engaging on Twitter.
And vitally, the clubs are now an attraction to the younger generations of local football fans who are now more likely to support their local team rather than donning a Manchester United or Liverpool kit because they ‘are the best’.
The evidence is there for all to see when you witness the new breed of supporter filling Brighton’s new Amex stadium. All we need now is for Bournemouth to start climbing that League One table.
But the future’s bright; the future’s football for us living in the south